A license to bill?

I’ve long been troubled by the movement towards licensing the software that we all need to do business and, increasingly, to function in the modern world. The rise of the smart phone is only accelerating this with use of multiple devices, cloud services and the like.

I last bought a copy of MS Office in 2003. I bought a copy of Dreamweaver in the late nineties when it was Macromedia and didn’t replace it until I bought a copy of CS4 some years ago. Running a limited company I take the same approach as many corporations, in that I buy software infrequently and try to get the maximum value out of it. Frequently the improvements offered by upgrades are not sufficient for me to spend the extra cash. I’ve never been a consumer in that sense in the rest of my life so I’m not inclined to be so with software. I’ve recently bought a copy of Office 2010 and only because I was able to find a boxed copy on a CD for which I am very grateful. I simply didn’t want to buy a subscription to Office 365 or the other variants that Microsoft seem to be offering today. I don’t like subscription services as, being a one man band, you never know what’s around the corner so I spend the money upfront and I know I’ve got the software for life. For the same reason I buy a new phone every four or five years, pay for it upfront, off contract, and put my existing sim-card in the new phone. It’s a cautious approach but it has served me well through boom and bust.

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With the massive rise of iTunes we now license music. Okay iTunes will tell us that we license it for life but how long before they decide they want to change that model? Tomorrow they could claim they are saving us money or offering us greater value or convenience, while disguising an attempt to increase revenues. I grew up with vinyl and I liked owning album sleeves, especially the fold-out artworks of the 1970s, so I like to own tangible objects. (Album art was the added value of its age.) Therefore I buy my music on CD and I’m happy to pay for that.

Software companies are rapidly turning into service companies. This has already happened in manufacturing when IBM stopped making computers and turned themselves into a company offering IT services. (Do they even exist as a company now? I’ve not seen their brand for some time.) A few years ago Xerox sold their manufacturing operations to a company in India and became a provider of document management services. They now run document libraries and associated operations. Chester Carlson, the inventor of Xerography, will be turning in his grave. (There’s a joke there about rollers in paper feeders but I just can’t seem to think of it.)

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Naturally these companies will take the view that they are returning shareholder value by this strategy but are they? Today I read an extensive forum thread of Adobe users (subscribers) who don’t feel they are being properly served by the fact that the details of 38 million Adobe accounts are now on the web. They are talking of a class action arguing that their personal data hasn’t been properly secured.

Much of this seems to be motivated by companies wanting to harvest personal data as this is now seen as the major commodity of the future. Does this mean that there is now something happening to the concept of ownership and should we be concerned? Will we soon have to license the food we eat and what happens when we’ve finished with it?

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